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Senate moves ahead with trade bill

A man walks in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington on April 23, 2015.
A man walks in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington on April 23, 2015.

The Senate on Thursday approved a procedural vote on a key trade bill favored by the White House and strongly opposed by some Democrats. The lopsided 65-33 vote to cut off debate came just days after the Senate rejected a similar procedural vote.

The chamber still needs to vote on the Trade Promotion Authority bill itself, which would fast track congressional approval of trade treaties, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The Senate will take up the TPA bill next week, but it will be a race against the clock to get the bill done before Congress’ Memorial Day recess.

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Democratic opponents are hoping to delay approval as long as possible in a bid to derail the entire effort, while Republicans want to send the TPA bill to President Obama’s desk as soon as possible.

Opponents hope to slow approval by forcing votes on numerous amendments to the bill. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell could counter by shutting down the amendment process and moving to a final vote. But McConnell has said he would allow an open amendment process, so clamping down on the process risks alienating some pro-trade Democrats whose votes he needs.

Meanwhile, the Senate still has to pass two unrelated but important measures next week, as they are set to expire by the first of next month.

“Ideally, it would be really great to put this one up on the scoreboard before Memorial Day and then to be able to have the House act on it when they come back,” Republican Sen. John Thune told reporters after the vote, according to Politico. “I think it’s going to depend entirely on the amendment process — how lengthy that becomes and how exhaustive that becomes.”

Liberal Democrats like Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown have been fighting the trade bill, putting them at odds with the Obama White House. But the bill failed Tuesday because of defections from pro-trade Democrats, not liberals.

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Nine pro-trade senators were summoned to the White House following the vote and emerged with a deal to move forward. In return for the progress, the pro-trade Democrats won votes on two trade-related measures Thursday, including one opposed by the Obama White House.

That measure, to crack down on countries that manipulate their currency to juice exports, passed the Senate earlier Thursday as part of larger effort to boost U.S. Customs officials authority to enforce trade rules.

The White House supports the Customs enforcement, but opposes the currency manipulation measure, making the package’s future uncertain.

The Senate also approved 97-1 another uncontroversial measure to favor trade with African nations.